Monday, July 26, 2010

2. Canons

Muslim tradition links the three major Abrahamic communities together under the rubric of the ahl al-kitab, people of the book. Each faith cherishes its own revered Scriptures; exceptionally, Christians have purloined the holy book of another faith (the Hebrew Bible), combining it with their own New Testament. In keeping with this bibliolatry, if it may be so termed, writing and literacy are highly prized in all three traditions.

Careful scrutiny reveals that the Abrahamic Scriptures display considerable internal variety. Disregarding this diversity, those who revere them maintain that they cohere completely and are therefore invariable. Scribes must take great care not to introduce, whether deliberately or inadvertently, any alteration. To be sure, even with the best of intentions on the part of the scribes, corruptions will appear from time to time. However, these must be relentlessly detected and corrected by later critics. Such, at any rate, is the ideal.

This ne varietur principle is pervasive. For example, the Book of Deuteronomy (4:2; 12:32) includes prohibitions against adding or subtracting. This admonition seems to apply not just to the book itself, but to the whole corpus ostensibly revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Contrast, for example, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where there is no single recognized form; instead, the text might be enlarged or reduced according to the needs of each individual who commissioned a version of it.

Is this contrast really absolute? Skeptics might well say that originally all the Abrahamic scriptures probably had the same fluidity as the Book of the Dead. Once they were set in concrete, though, the composite nature of their origins could be forgotten.


Rabbinical tradition recognizes the twenty-four books of the Masoretic recension as constituting the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. (This collection of texts corresponds to what Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament.)

In the rabbinical view, the texts comprise three main groups: the Torah proper (that is the Pentateuch); the Prophets (Nevi’im); and the Writings (Kertuvim), an umbrella term for all the rest, including Ezra, Chronicles, Nehemiah, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Psalms, Lamentation, the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Esther, and the book of Daniel.

It is important to bear in mind that the order in which the books appear in modern Bibles offers no guidance as to when the books were originally written and in what order. For example, the Pentateuch was probably composed after a number of other books in the Hebrew canon. Similarly, in the New Testament the Four Gospels are clearly later in date than some of the letters of St. Paul that appear later in the sequence.

So when were the books of the Hebrew Bible assembled? A traditional theory, now largely abandoned, holds that the Pentateuch was canonized ca. 400 BCE, the Prophets ca. 200 BCE, and the Writings ca. circa 100 CE, at a hypothetical Council of Jamnia.

The second book of Maccabees, not itself a part of the Hebrew canon, states that Nehemiah (around 400 BCE) "founded a library and collected books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings" (2:13-15). The Book of Nehemiah (8-9) suggests (or seems to suggest) that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Pentateuch back from Babylonia to Jerusalem in the same general time frame. Both 1 and 2 Maccabees indicate that Judas Maccabeus also collected sacred books (about 167 BCE). These hints do not suffice to prove that the Jewish biblical canon was fixed in the time of the Hasmonean dynasty. While these sources sustain the view that some held that the canon was closed, they do not particularize which books were included. There is no certainty that the roster was identical with what was later recognized as the Masoretic text.

The Septuagint, or simply LXX, is the name commonly given in the West to the translation into Koine Greek of the Hebrew Scriptures. The translation occurred in stages from the third to the first century BCE in Alexandria, Egypt. The roster of books accepted differs in some respects from the later Masoretic (Hebrew) canon, and some texts differ in length.

In its day the Septuagint enjoyed great prestige: Philo and Josephus (giants of Hellenistic Judaism) ascribed divine inspiration to its translators. The Old Latin versions of the Bible follow the Septuagint. In addition, the Septuagint served as the basis for Gothic, Slavonic, old Syriac, old Armenian, and Coptic versions of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint is quoted in the New Testament and by the Apostolic Fathers writing in the latter part of the first century and the second century CE.

At the beginning of the rabbinic era, in the third century CE, Jews abandoned this Greek rendering of their Scriptures. Yet recent scholarship has brought renewed interest in it in the field of Judaic Studies. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls provide Hebrew texts that differ from those represented in the Masoretic text; in some cases, these newly found texts accord with the Septuagint version, serving to vindicate it as the witness of an authentic tradition.

The first reference to a 24-book Jewish canon appears in 2 Esdras (a so-called Intertestamental text; 14:45-46), which was probably written in the first half of the second century CE: “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people.”

The short answer to the quest for the origin of the canon of the Hebrew Bible is that no one knows for sure. It may even have been the case that the idea of a definitive canon was not important to the early rabbis. They were satisfied that there were indeed certain holy books Moreover, the ranks were expanded to include the Mishnah, Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud (or Bavli), and the midrashim. Today, however, these texts are generally assigned to the Oral Torah, distinct from, but ostensibly concordant with the Written Torah or Tanakh.

The Masoretic text ranks as the authoritative Hebrew text of the Tanakh; this recension is almost universally accepted as the official version. It defines not just the books of the Jewish canon, but also the letter-text of the biblical books, including their vocalization and accentuation. The fact that help is supplied for pronunciation suggests that Hebrew had ceased to be a living language at the time of the compilation of the Masoretic text. This text is widely used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament found in Protestant Bibles, and in recent years (since 1943) also for some Catholic Bibles.

What is the origin of the Masoretic text? Between the seventh and tenth centuries CE, groups of learned Jews known as Masoretes copied, edited, and distributed this recension. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic text date from approximately the ninth century CE. Earlier versions, notably those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, differ from the Masoretic text in various details, showing that the latter is essentially a new edition, and not simply a faithful copy of some earlier authoritative text.


There are two issues here, because there were two canons. The first issue reflects the controversy as to whether the Christians were to accept the Hebrew Bible as scripture, however its contents were to be defined. The second concerns the formation of a distinctively Christian canon, that is, what we now term the New Testament. The first instance involves canon adoption; the second canon creation.

From its earliest days the Christian movement honored the Tanakh according to the canon of the Septuagint. That allegiance was mandatory for Jews of the time. Yet the apostles did not presume to set forth a new set of scriptures of their own. Instead, what came to be called the New Testament developed over time.

On an individual basis--and not as some carefully crafted series--the writings attributed to the apostles enjoyed wide popularity among the earliest Christian communities. Yet they were not destined to remain in this solo role, for it seems that the Pauline epistles were cobbled together as a set by the end of the first century CE. In the early second century Justin Martyr mentions the "memoirs of the apostles," which Christians called "gospels." In Justin’s time the view was gaining ground that this corpus deserved to take its place alongside the revered Hebrew Scriptures. Thus there emerged the concept, which remains unacceptable to most Jews, of the partnership of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Partnership, but not true equality, since the brash Christian contender speedily ascended to an extraordinary pinnacle. This enhancement occurred even though the newcomer was less than a third of the length of the Hebrew Scriptures. Learned Christians began to interpret the Old Testament teleologically as a kind of extended dress rehearsal for the new Christian creation. Only in recent times have scholars begun to recognize this view as a distortion, because it hinders the task of examining the earlier texts in the light of their own origins and meaning. In order to preserve this necessary autonomy the terms Hebrew Bible and Tanakh are now preferred to “Old Testament.”

Around 140 CE, the brilliant but wayward Christian scholar Marcion of Sinope offered a kind of sacred honor roll that included 10 epistles he ascribed to Saint Paul, as well as his own truncated version of the Gospels. He believed that the four Gospels could be boiled down to one, the Diatessaron.

The first major figure to essay in depth the task of codifying the Christian canon was the industrious Origen of Alexandria, a scholar well educated in both theology and pagan philosophy. Working in the early third century, Origen devised a canon that would include all of the books in the current Catholic roster except for four books: James, Second Peter, and the Second and Third Epistles of John. By contrast, Origen also included a text known as the Shepherd of Hermas, which was later rejected. Even though later scholars judged that he was not quite there yet, this accounting ranks as a major milestone in task of compiling the books and letters the Christian church was to recognize as its primary repository of authoritative and inspired teaching.

Somewhat earlier (ca. 160) Irenaeus of Lyon had offered strenuous arguments for a four-Gospel canon--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and this was generally accepted. Nonetheless, matters remained in flux in some time. Finally, in his Easter letter of 367 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of the very books that are now accepted as the New Testament canon.

Some hesitation remained about the book of Revelation, but basically matters remained this way for more than a thousand years. Then the protestant Reformation, with its intense interest in interpretation and translation of the Holy Scriptures, unleashed some doubts and questioning. After much soul searching, Martin Luther attempted to exclude the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the New Testament canon (echoing the consensus of several Catholics, such as Cardinal Ximeniz, Cardinal Cajetan, and Erasmus), in part because they were perceived to go against the Protestant doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide (reliance upon scripture and faith). However, these exclusions were not generally accepted, even among his his followers. To this day though, these books are relegated to the last position in the German-language Luther Bible.

Printed Bibles in many languages had the effect of ratifying the traditional canon. Nonetheless, full dogmatic articulations of the canons were not made until the Council of Trent (1546) for Roman Catholicism, the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) for the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) for British Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem (1672) for Eastern Orthodoxy.


So matters stood until the latter part of the twentieth century, when scholars were increasingly drawn to examine the large body of non-canonical Christian literature. For example, we now have, in whole or in part, the texts o some eighteen “other” Gospels, in addition to the familiar four ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But what makes them so special? How do we know that those four--and only those four--belong in the Bible?

One can proceed to make alterations by compression as well as enlargement. As noted above, Marcion had attempted to create a kind of Reader’s Digest version, compressing them into one text. More recently, the American Jesus Seminar has attempted a kind of slimming down process, by questioning the authenticity of many passages. However, this approach is not really new, and the Seminar has issued publications that include the entire New Testament canon of books (and then some, as we shall see).

In other quarters, recent scholarship has seen a concerted (and seemingly fairly successful) effort to reconstruct the mysterious Q, a posited Gospel text that served, alongside Mark’s Gospel, as the basis for the narratives of Matthew and Luke. Yet since the material already appears embedded in accepted texts, the yield is not really new.

Matters are quite different with the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, a well- preserved text discovered in a cache of manuscripts secreted near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. This work is one of a group of books known as the Nag Hammadi library.

The Coptic-language text comprises 114 sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. Almost half of these sayings resemble those found in the canonical Gospels, while the other sayings were previously unknown. Some have described the inspiration of the Gospel of Thomas as gnostic, though others dispute this characterization.

Unlike the canonical Gospels, Thomss does not offer a narrative account of the life of Jesus; instead, it consists of logia (sayings) attributed to Jesus, sometimes presented as stand-alone items, sometimes embedded in short dialogues or parables. In logion 65, the text contains a possible allusion to the death of Jesus, but it does not specifically mention the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Daringly, the Jesus Seminar has printed the Gospel of Thomas on an equal footing with the traditional four (see Robert W. Funk, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper, 1999). In his ebullient set of translations entitled The Restored New Testament (New York: Norton, 2009), the polyglot translator Willis Barnstone goes farther, offering not only the Gospel of Thomas, but two other non-canonical Gospels, those of Mary Magdalene and Judas. (The latter, a sensational find, was only published in 2006.)

These adjuncts may have theological implications. If the canon is now malleable, interpreters are free to exclude as well as to include. In such choices theological considerations may play a role. For example, some feminist scholars have sought to bring to the fore certain texts in which women’s roles are more prominent. Thus far, though, such attempts to enlarge the canon have not found their way into standard editions of the Bible


Modern standard editions of the Qur’an comprise 114 suras (or chapters). After the first sura, they are arranged according to length, from the longest to the shortest.

Islam holds that in a series of charismatic sessions Allah revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad orally through the angel Jibril (Gabriel) over a period of approximately twenty-three years, beginning in 610 CE, when the Prophet was forty, and concluding in 632 CE, the year of his death. Muslims further believe that the substance of the Qur’an was memorized, recited, and written down by Muhammad's companions after every revelation as dictated from memory by the Prophet. Seemingly, Muhammad (who may have been illiterate) approved the written form of the suras as they were read back to him. In addition, Muslim tradition holds that the suras were welded together into a single book--what we now know as the Qur’an--shortly after Muhammad's death by order of the first Caliph Abu Bakr, at the suggestion of his successor Umar. When Uthman, the third Caliph, noticed differences in the dialectical forms used of the Qur’an, he requested that Muhammad’s widow Hafsa provide him with her copy so that the text could be adjusted to as single standard based on the Quraish dialect (also known as Fus’ha, the basis for Modern Standard Arabic.) Because of this clear chain of transmission, we may rely on what is termed the “Uthmanic recension,” that is to say the authentic version known to Abu Bakr and Umar, with minor adjustments on purely linguistic grounds.

This is a reassuring story, but is it true? Modern scholarship suggests that some suras may incorporate pre-Islamic materials, some stemming from old Arabia, with other parts reflecting the adaptation of a lectionary in Syriac, a related Semitic language (Luxenberg, 2007). There may be other accretions added later. Thus the Qur’an is a composite that may not have reached its present form until at least a century after the death of the Prophet, perhaps even later.

In fact there is no critical edition of the Qur’an, and currently accepted versions rely upon a text published in Cairo in 1923. Finally, in 2007, a team of researchers at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences began preparing the first installment of Corpus Coranicum, purporting to be nothing less than the first critically evaluated text of the Qur'an ever to be produced. Headed by Professor Angelika Neuwirth of the Free University of Berlin, the German research team is in the process of analyzing and transcribing some 12,000 slides of Qur'an manuscripts that have survived from the first six centuries of Islam. This material stems from photographs collected before World War II by Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl. The project is currently funded till 2025, but could well take longer to complete.

Once that task has been completed, the way will be open--in principle--to producing a reliable text that records and correlates the variants found in the early manuscripts. Such a project must needs encounter pressures, and there are indications that some bending to the demands of established Islamic opinion has already occurred. In this light some skepticism is warranted as to whether the aims of the ambitious Berlin-Brandenburg project will be fully attained.

At all events, interpretation of the holy work presents many difficulties. As is typical of early texts in Semitic languages, the earliest versions of the Qur'an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. Not only are no vowels marked, many consonants can also be read in a number of ways due to the absence of diacritical marks. It is claimed that we can rely on the stability of the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. Comparative studies suggest, however, that oral traditions are anything but stable. They are unreliable because of the so-called “telephone effect,” in which each reciter tends to introduce, whether consciously or unconsciously, subtle changes that are in turn passed on to the next reciter. Nowadays this problem is obviated by the control of a standardized text, but this not available in the early decades. We are told that Muhammad was illiterate, and so too must have been many of his followers. So a good deal of variation must crept in between the time of the original recitations and the final emergence of a standardized text. Pious Muslims, claiming that the Qur’an is beyond critique, deny this possibility. However, objective scholarship must not be content with such taboos. One must go in whatever direction the evidence takes.

As we have it, the Qur'an is often highly obscure. The style is allusive, and the text employs expressions unfamiliar even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit. Some passages seem to present fragments wrested from a larger context that is no longer available. It has been estimated that about 20-25% of the text of the Qur’an is opaque or simply unintelligible.

One explanation that has been advanced for these hermetic features would be that the Prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious communities with which he was acquainted, descanting upon revered texts such as hymns, lectionaries, and prayers, many of theme derived from Syriac, a cognate Semitic language.

One scholar, Gerd Puin, has termed the Qur’an a “cocktail of texts.” If one assumes that the individual segments were produced individually over many generations--some perhaps originating a hundred years before Muhammad, others considerably after his death--the heterogeneity of these scriptures becomes understandable, even if one cannot adequately analyze the component liqueurs, as it were, that make up the cocktail.

In the present state of our knowledge it is not possible to answer these questions in any definitive manner. It would seem though the the traditional view will have to yield to some modification.

As we have indicated, everyone agrees that the order in which the suras appear is not the one in which they were delivered to Muhammad (granted for the purposes of argument that they came into being in the manner that tradition assumes). For some centuries Muslim scholars have recognized two groups, those delivered at Mecca, and those delivered after Muhammad moved to Medina in 632. In a series of refinements followed by many Western scholars today, the German Semitic scholar Theodor Nöldeke (1836-1930) sought to discern a number of subcategories in the corpus of Medinan suras. Both approaches assume as a matter of course that the suras making up the Qur’an all came into being in an orderly fashion over a period of twenty-three years. However, this traditional view may not be correct. In fact, it may be a “just-so” story.


The canon of the Hebrew Bible has been stable for many centuries. When one purchases a Jewish Bible, one may be certain of what one will get. However, the rabbis will also consult other documents, especially the Mishnah and Talmud, for guidance.

After some discussion, the early Christians adopted the Hebrew Bible in its Greek (Septuagint) guise, which they came to term the Old Testament. They then built up their own canon, the New Testament. Recent decades have seen some efforts to enlarge this specifically Christian canon by incorporating one or more of the "alternative" Gospels. The prospects of this attempt at canon massaging are uncertain.

The 114 suras of the Qur'an are accepted by all Muslims. While efforts are under way to create a critical edition, many believers regard this effort as superfluous--possibly even harmful.


Barnstone, Willis, ed. The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas. New York: Norton, 2009.

Elliott, J. K. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Fernandez Marcos, Natalio. The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible. Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Funk, Robert, ed. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1999.

Ibn Warraq, ed. The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Luxenberg, Christoph. The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007.

Mack, Burton L. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

McDonald, Lee Martin, and James A. Sanders. The Canon Debate. Gaithersburg, MD: Hendrickson Publishing, 2002.

Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. New York: Harper, 2009.

Ohlig, Karl-Heinz and Gerd R. Puin, eds. The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2010.

Reynolds, Gabriel Said, ed. The Qur'an in Its Historical Context. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.